By Gavin Kentch and Rachel Bachman Perkins
The 2022 U.S. Cross Country Championships began in Soldier Hollow, outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, on Sunday with skate sprints. JC Schoonmaker, recently returned from Europe, took his first national championship with relative ease for the men, while Caitlin Patterson, who was the first American in all four races at 2018 U.S. Nationals, returned to her Olympic-year winning ways by taking the victory for the women. Will Koch and Rosie Frankowski won the qualifiers, the race that matters for potential domestic Olympic qualification.
Men’s Race: JC Schoonmaker Wins First National Title with Tactics and Speed
JC Schoonmaker was born in August 2000. Eighteen months later, American skier and ski journalist Cory Smith, writing on a nascent website called FasterSkier.com, observed that race tactics were important on the sprint course being used for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and that it was generally disadvantageous to be leading into the final downhill as athletes approached the sweeping lefthand turn into the finishing stretch. He discussed Kateřina Neumannová’s quarterfinal heat as an example of the potential dangers of leading throughout, if that name gives you a sense for how long ago we’re talking about.
Twenty years later, in the opening race of 2022 U.S. Cross Country Championships, the names had changed but not the physics, as time and again it became apparent that athletes’ positioning on the final downhill was the single most important aspect of the course. Multiple heats saw athletes come back from fifth or even sixth to move up through the field and advance, and the one male athlete who tried to lead his heat from the gun paid for it in the end.
Schoonmaker, the U.S. Ski Team athlete who skis domestically for University of Alaska Anchorage, understood these tactics to perfection, using the experience gained from racing into 14th in the current World Cup sprint standings (despite missing two sprints in the Tour de Ski) to position himself exactly where he wanted to be throughout the afternoon. The result was his first national title, on a sunny, high-pressure, perfect day at Soldier Hollow.
We’re not going to survey every heat from Sunday’s races, on the first of four days of competition at Soldier Hollow, but it’s worth looking at the fastest qualifiers, and the day’s first quarterfinal, to set a tone for what followed.
In the qualifier, 19-year-old University of Colorado skier Will Koch may have turned some heads when he notched the day’s fastest time, 3:07.88. Schoonmaker had the day’s second-best mark, 0.47 seconds back, with Bridger Ski Foundation athlete Logan Diekmann third by over a second more.
In the day’s first quarterfinal, Koch picked up where he had left off in the qualifier, blasting off the line to set a hot pace right from the start. He was probably the only athlete all day to V2 the entire first hill leading out of the stadium. He led up the first hill, down the first downhill, up the second and main climb on the course, and into the start of the final sweeping downhill into the stadium and the finishing lanes (see course map and profile below).
But then, for the first time on the day but not the last, the athlete who led into this descent was swallowed up by the rest of the field by the time they reached the final lefthand curve. Koch was caught up, gamely contested the group sprint that ensued, but barely ran out of gas after pushing hard for the entire heat.
Koch would finish fifth in a five-man heat – despite skiing faster than he had in qualifying. For his troubles, he towed the entire heat to the day’s fastest times by far, and both lucky loser spots; fifth in this heat would have won any other quarterfinal, semifinal, or final on the day. By nearly 5 seconds.
While the top qualifier was knocked out in the first quarterfinal, the effort is not to be diminished. Indeed, Koch chose a tactic, committed to it fully, executed it well, and came within 0.05 seconds of claiming fourth in his quarterfinal to advance as a lucky loser. With that in mind, this heat set the tone for the day, as a field of observant professional athletes noticed that there was maybe not a lot to gain by leading out the heat, and a lot to lose.
As Smith wrote of these dynamics on this course 20 years ago, “The ideal situation is to spend the first three-quarters of the race in the back, avoiding mayhem and drafting. Then move up to second coming into the final turn, and use the turn to shoot out and around the leader to win the sprint. But obviously that is easier said than done when everyone else is trying to do the same thing.”
In lieu of a play-by-play of the next six quarterfinal and semifinal heats on Sunday, let’s just survey some winning times: 3:06.09 (QF1, Koch’s heat); 3:15.31 (QF2); 3:13.97 (QF3); 3:16.83 (QF4); 3:10.99 (QF5); 3:13.16 (SF1); 3:20.04 (SF2). There’s a theme there: While the heat 1 lucky losers may see Koch’s reward for pushing the pace, no one else in the men’s field chose his approach. Racing was slower-paced, but it was hard to fault the results, at least for the athletes who advanced.
(The discrepancy is perhaps even greater than that, as local observers noted that the course got progressively faster throughout the day, as it warmed up from below-zero F temperatures the night before. On quiet moments in the livestream, the difference between notably squeaky snow (for the qualifiers) and not-squeaky snow (for the heats) was apparent.)
The other, related issue was falls at the bottom of the long runout, as trailing athletes accordioned back up to the leaders, and four, five, or even six men all sought to move from a narrow tuck to a wide V2 at the same time on the same stretch of trail. Through what consistently looked like incidental contact rather than malicious contact punishable by a yellow card or other formal sanction, Ian Torchia, Bill Harmeyer, Christopher Kalev, and Brian Bushey all hit the deck in their quarterfinals. The same thing happened in the semis, too, with Karl Schulz falling in the first semifinal and John Schwinghamer in the second. Again, it certainly appeared that it was not intentional, just the results of athletes all commencing a V2 at the same time at high speed.
After one fast heat and six slower heats, six men lined up for the final: JC Schoonmaker (UAA/USST), Noel Keeffe (University of Utah/USST), Logan Diekmann (BSF), Johnny Hagenbuch (SVSEF/USST), Magnus Bøe (University of Colorado), and Andreas Kirkeng (University of Denver).
Their average age was slightly less than 22; they had probably not read Smith’s coverage of the 2002 Olympic sprint when it was first published. But they had all successfully raced two heats on this course already, and they seemed disinclined to change what had got them there.
All of which is to say that Schoonmaker’s winning time for the final, 3:21.05, was the slowest of any men’s heat that day. (Indeed, this time would have placed him fourth in the first junior boys semifinal.) Diekmann led the pack out of the stadium in the final, closely tailed by the rest of the field. The men skied fairly leisurely up the first uphill, down the first downhill, and up the second uphill.
Finally, coming into the final downhill, Bøe moved, and Schoonmaker followed. The field started racing in earnest at this point, but there was still not much separation between six athletes traveling at high speeds: Here’s the men’s field, nearly three minutes into the final, about to come up out of their tucks, navigate the final lefthand turn, and sprint into the finish:
That’s Schoonmaker in the lead, Keeffe just off his right shoulder in second, Bøe (bib no. 30) in third, then Diekmann, Hagenbuch, and Kirkeng trailing slightly behind in fourth through sixth, respectively, from left to right. And, spoiler alert, these were not their final finishing positions; there was more movement yet to come.
While the camera work, free live broadcast, and Adam Verrier’s announcing were consistently superb, the limitations of the available camera angles meant that a portion of the final lefthand curve was obscured from view for a few seconds. (That curve can be seen in the video in the second half of this Instagram post from BSF.)
By the time the athletes came into view once more, Schoonmaker had positioned himself precisely where he wanted to be, on the inside of the curve, carrying a lead of multiple meters. His gap was small but consistent through the finish, which he approached with sufficient time and space to stand up and celebrate across the line.
Schoonmaker’s winning time was 3:21.05. Behind him, Diekmann (+0.83) outlunged Keeffe (+.91) for second by less than a ski. Hagenbuch was another 0.20 seconds back in fourth (+1.11) , followed by the two collegiate skiers, Bøe and Kirkeng, in fifth (+2.14) and sixth (+3.47).
“I’m feeling really good after a nice relaxing Christmas at home [in Tahoe City, CA],” Schoonmaker wrote to FasterSkier after the race. “It was great to have a mental break from racing and we got absolutely dumped on with snow so that was really fun too.”
Schoonmaker also spoke to his feelings in the sprint, after a successful, but potentially draining stint in Europe, where he skied into the semifinals three times, finishing as high as 7th in Ruka, Finland.
“Today I felt pretty good and felt like I was getting better throughout the day after a little break from racing. It’s a weird course with the last downhill being so tactical but I was happy with my positioning and how I skied it. I won’t race the 30k just to make sure I’m not overdoing it but I’m really looking forward to the 15k classic, almost more than the sprints since I haven’t been doing much distance racing. I’m also just super excited to be back racing in the US and seeing a ton of friends out there!”
It was Schoonmaker’s first national championship. His trajectory to the top of American sprinting has been quick, and recent; he finished 13th in the skate sprint at 2020 U.S. Nationals, and 14th in the classic sprint at 2019 U.S. Nationals. The last time he raced a national championship at Soldier Hollow, in 2017, he was 165th, albeit also age 16.
Women’s Race: Caitlin Patterson Times Her Move to Take the Victory
The tactical theme held fast through the women’s heats. Athletes stayed relaxed through the first two climbs of the course, using the sweeping downhill in the middle to establish position heading into a final shorter climb. Pushing over the top and into the downhill, athletes benefited from tucking into the slipstream of the leader rather than being first in the glideout, conserving energy for the final explosive push over the bridge and up through the finish lanes to the line.
Perhaps the only skier breaking from this narrative was APU’s Rosie Frankowski. Though she was third in both Period 1 SuperTour sprint races this season, Frankowski has historically been better known for her distance chops. Perhaps recognizing she’d need a fast heat to ensure lucky loser opportunities, Frankowski took the first heat of the quarterfinal out hot, dropping the field on the opening climb only to be reeled back in on the subsequent descent. As the women left the critical descent and began to skate out of the subsequent glideout, Frankowski was within a group of four women.
Powering into the final stretch, it was Frankowski matched by her teammate Becca Rorabaugh leading the way to the line, with Sun Valley’s Samantha Smith and Northern Michigan’s Katarina Hyncicova close behind. Rorabaugh took the heat in 3:43.67 with Frankowski in second. Though she qualified automatically, Frankowski’s fast start achieved the objective; it was the fastest heat of the quarters, allowing both Smith and Hyncicova to advance to the semis.
In the semis, Frankowski repeated her approach, again pushing the pace early to establish a fast heat. Sydney Palmer-Leger (Univ. of Utah/USST) looked comfortable and content with her position as she trailed Frankowski into the sweeping downhill. Rorabaugh and Anna Bizyukova (UVM) also caught the leaders in the glideout, with Bizyukova sliding around the outside to head over the bridge alongside Palmer-Leger, setting the stage for a tight four-way spread at the finish with Frankowski and Rorabaugh on their tails.
Finishing with what would be by far the fastest times of the day, Palmer-Leger took the win in 3:38.61, edging out Bizyukova by 0.14 seconds. Half a ski length behind, Frankowski crossed in third (+0.31), with Rorabaugh fourth (+0.46). Roughly seven seconds back, Hannah Rudd (BSF) was fifth in the semi, finishing just ahead of Hyncicova.
In the second semi, SMS T2 athlete Lina Sutro set a more conservative pace, leading Middlebury athlete Kate Oldham through the first two climbs. Sun Valley’s Samantha Smith made some aggressive hop-skate pushes to take the lead on climbs, but she was caught and passed on each of the subsequent descents. Sutro and Oldham charged hard over the top of the final climb, pushing into the downhill, but a strong move around the curve by Mariel Pulles (UAF) shot her to the front from fourth, while Caitlin Patterson also accelerated into the lead group.
Coming into the final stretch, it was Pulles with a narrow advantage over Patterson, with Sutro and Oldham holding on for a fast time, but no longer within reach of automatic qualification. Pulles crossed the line in 3:45.15, well behind the previous heat’s benchmark, indicating that only she and Patterson, who crossed +0.10 behind, would advance to the final.
Sutro crossed the line just ahead of Oldham for third (+0.28), followed by Oldham in fourth (+0.74). Lucinda Anderson (UNH) and Smith rounded out the second semi in fifth (+1.04) and sixth (+2.72), respectively.
In the final, a broken pole early on put Pulles at a significant disadvantage, though she held contact with the leaders. Frankowski again pulled ahead from the start, looking to be at the front, and set a pace that would not leave her opponents fresh for a fast and tactical final push.
After maintaining her position at the front through the meat of the course, Frankowski was once again swallowed up in the glideout as Patterson, Palmer-Leger, Rorabaugh, and Bizyukoga each caught and passed her. Frankowski wobbled as she found her position, looking as if some unintentional bumping of skis had taken place at the spot where we saw many crashes in the men’s quarterfinals and semifinals.
Patterson led over the bridge with Rorabaugh on her tails and Palmer-Leger in a competitive position alongside. Creating a small gap ahead of the three women in pursuit in the final straightaway, Patterson, Rorabaugh, and Palmer-Leger skied three abreast, seemingly evenly matched in the closing meters. Palmer-Leger skied with the highest tempo, but Patterson’s smooth and powerful technique carried her through the finish with the advantage, stopping the clock at 3:42.60, with Rorabaugh half a ski length behind in second (+0.24), and Palmer-Leger spaced evenly behind in third (+0.57).
Bizyukova won the second-wave sprint to take fourth (+1.57), with Pulles, still racing with a dysfunctional pole, next over the line in fifth (+2.28), with Frankowski finally losing steam to finish sixth (+2.52).
Patterson was realistic after the race when she assessed her chances, while also revealing it was no secret that the final downhill was the crux of the course.
“The sprint today was really fun,” she wrote to FasterSkier late Sunday. “I went into it in no way expecting to win, but believed that it was within the realm of possibilities. The key would be to see how the final downhill played out in the heats and and try to play it well myself.”
Patterson added, “I do love downhills, but this Soldier Hollow sprint course perplexes me somewhat because it feels hard to control what’s going to happen in the race, with the way the draft might play out in those final hundred meters. I didn’t feel particularly in control during my heats, but I took advantage of whatever I could work with for positioning and made it work to move on through the quarterfinal and semifinal. I felt better in the heats than during the qualifier, but in much of the heat race I felt that the packs moved around and stayed tight together in a way that I had to tap into surges here and there rather than a consistent effort throughout the whole course. There were a lot of really tight finishes today – my own and others – and I think there were a ton of super strong skiers out there who probably got edged out by the tiniest of margins, but so goes sprint racing.”
Turning to the final, Patterson recounted, “I was forced out wide to the right at the base of the final climb, and had to tuck in behind some people skiing up that steep hill. It wasn’t necessarily my plan to enter the downhill in 5th, but then when I pushed super hard over the top of the hill, I caught several drafts and executed good passes. When I found myself taking the lead going into the final corner, I pushed to the finish with everything I had even as I started to get a bit wobbly, and fortunately managed to hold off Becca and Sydney!”
The 30-something Patterson added, “Becca and I would like to note that no one should count us Master’s racers out of the game!”
Patterson noted that she is pleased to achieve sprint success domestically, but is seeking more international opportunities in distance races.
“Period 1 racing on the World Cup was ok for me, but not great, it felt like a bit of a slow start to wake up the distance race speed. Undoubtedly the whole World Cup field is extremely competitive right now, and the other US women are super strong which is awesome to see, but I want to get up there myself into contention! Without scoring any World Cup points in P1, it wasn’t really an option to stay and race the Tour this year, so I came back to the US to regroup and focus on Nationals racing. I believe that with strong Nationals distance race performances I may be able to earn more upcoming international racing starts, so that is my focus looking ahead.”
A full field of juniors raced as well, going through a complete set of heats and finals after the senior athletes. Kendall Kramer (University of Alaska Fairbanks/USST) took the junior girls final over fellow Alaskan Marit Flora (APU), with Erica Laven (Täby IS Skidor) in third. Laven is from Sweden; Lauren McCollor (Northern Michigan University), fourth overall, rounded out the domestic national championship podium as the third American.
In the junior boys final, Finegan Bailey (SMS) took the win, with Trey Jones (Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club) in second. Aidan Burt (University of Vermont) was third.
More about the course
The Soldier Hollow sprint course has historical relevance looking back to the 2002 Olympics, as discussed above. It also has prospective relevance, to the 2022 Olympics that start in Beijing in roughly a month.
Notably, and speaking of this year’s Olympics, it is “only … qualification round finish placing” that is considered for the USSS 2022 Championship Selection List, i.e., Koch and Frankowski each received a full 45 points (30 points for first plus 15 points for the national championship bonus) for winning the qualifier, regardless of their final overall placing.
While it remains an open question how many domestic athletes will be selected to this year’s Olympic team off of these races, it would be hard to find a better course to use as a basis for comparison. As Rosie Brennan noted in explaining her decision to come back home during the Tour de Ski and experience an extended period of living and skiing at altitude, the two trail systems were even designed by the same person.
In addition to their more holistic similarities, their statistics are very comparable as well, particularly the overall elevation but also the more specific details of the course profiles:
If an athlete is indeed picked for the Olympic team based off of their performance in this week’s sprint races, it seems fair to say that they will have achieved success on the type of course they can expect to find in Zhangjiakou.
Gavin Kentch wrote for FasterSkier from 2016–2022. He has a cat named Marit.